Substantial Media, LLC. is on a mission to amplify positive stories within Black and Brown communities. By letting creativity run free, their contributors create multimedia content that brings attention to important issues at local, state and national levels. That kind of vision deserves recognition and support, so DT has devoted himself to Substantial’s mission by joining them as an investor and board member. On this episode, Substantial Media CEO Greg Hedgepeth and Substantial Magazine Editor-in-Chief Evelyne Del interview DT about his history, his hustle and his commitment to supporting their business.



Donald Thompson:  Welcome to The Donald Thompson Podcast. Today, I have two friends, very good friends of mine, Greg Hedgepeth and Evelyn Billingslea from Substantial Media. And so, both of you, thank you for joining us today.

Greg Hedgepeth:  Absolutely. Pleasure to be here.

Evelyn Del:  Thank you for having us.

Donald Thompson:  One of the thing’s that we’ll do that’s a little bit different is I’m going to give you all the space to introduce yourself, talk a little bit about what you do and, and your business endeavors. And then, we’re going to kind of flip the script, right? You all are going to interview me about entrepreneurship and about mistakes, which I’ve made a lot of them and different in different visions.

And so, I think that the audience will enjoy a, kind of a walk down memory lane and how I learned what I did through trial failure and adjustment. And so, Greg, why don’t you take it away? And then Evelyn, you wrap it up with just giving a little background to our audience. And Greg, I’ll turn it over to you.

Greg Hedgepeth:  Absolutely. So, I’m Greg Hedgepeth, and I’m super excited to be here with you, Donald Thompson talking a little bit about Substantial Media LLC, which I’ll get into, but first I always share that I’m just a  young Halifax County, a free-spirited country guy that’s trying to figure out how to make things happen.

I’ve been in the marketing and communications space now for about 15 years. And really started, to endeavor into the more entrepreneurial and social entrepreneurship space, as of recent with this project that we have caused Substantial Media. It is an opportunity to create and produce, editorial content on an online platform that tells the stories of influent, affluent minorities, while discussing relevant issues that directly impact us in our local, state and from a national level.

Awesome. Evelyn?

Evelyn Del:  Hi everybody. Thank you again, Donald, for having us. I’m Evelyn Del, and I am the editor in chief of Substantial Magazine.

So we’re the storytelling arm of the Substantial Media conglomeration. And, as Greg mentioned, you know, we tell the stories of influential minorities and, you know, we, we have a lot of great supporters, of course, starting in Eastern North Carolina – Greg and I both  being pirates. And I’m excited about this journey that we’re on.

We relaunched this year. We took a long hiatus from when we first started about six years ago, but we have picked things back up and we are just running full speed, so I’m truly grateful for that.

Donald Thompson:  Oh, fantastic. Well, I am excited to be with you and I’m going to turn the stage over to you, which I don’t do lightly, so that’s a compliment. Ask me anything, and I’ll give you the best I got.

Greg Hedgepeth:  I know, absolutely. And you know what? I think it’s rightfully so, because for us, we’re always in the chair doing the interviewing, right? And so, when asked to come on anyone’s show or be a part of any interview ourselves, we’re like, “Wait, that’s our role.”

So we flipped the script and I want to start by just simply saying, Donald, with over like 20 years of growing and leading firms. You know, just serving as a thought leader in this space, being the CEO of Walk West, the digital marketing firm based in Raleigh,  co-founder of The Diversity Movement in a time where, I mean, diversity, equity, inclusion, and championing that message is so important. Being an investor, which we’ll talk about in a little bit, a mentor, a coach, and then of all things by literally a content producer yourself, right, producing content for WRAL TechWire. The Entreprenurial Magazine. I mean, this podcast series that I am a huge fan of and follow, like just first and foremost, tell our audience, like out of all of that said, who Donald Thompson is.

Donald Thompson:  So when I talked to folks and answer that question, who am I. I’m the son of a football coach, and that says a lot, right? That lets you know, that I moved around a lot. In the football business, right, you win, you stay, people are patting you on the back, you lose a U-Haul truck is coming, right? And you gotta move to the next city and get it done again.

And so, I lived in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. I lived in Louisiana and Kentucky,  and obviously North Carolina and that’s where I went to high school  and some college. One of the things that I would say defines me is that, you know, I’m a dream chaser. And it means very simply is that when I see something that I want to go after, I have a competitive learning mentality that I want to learn about it. I want to study, I want to find people in the space that can educate me, but I believe that I can do it, too. Right? I believe enough in me that I’m not limited by somebody else’s narrative about what my life should be, And so, I’m willing to try.

And one of the, what I think is like my super power is I’m willing to be bad at something for a while, until I can be good. I’m willing to be good at something for awhile, until I can learn how to someday be great at something.  And so, I credit that attitude, that mindset of hopefulness and ambition to, to my parents, to my grandparents that, that fought and marched and struggled so that I could see the  world for the goodness in the world because they took some of the arrows for me.

Right? And so, my responsibility to pay them back is to succeed to the level that I could make the path smoother for people that came behind me. And so, one of the things that have any level of success that I’ve had is a high degree of humility. Right? I don’t believe I’ve done things because I’m special.

What’s special about me is my work ethic. Not necessarily my talent, not necessarily my background, but my commitment to the things that I try to do. And I hold the opportunities that I have dearly, and that way I protect my dream with that precious with that as that precious resource that it is. And I think most people, when they think about success and who they are.

They give a little bit too much weight to what other people think they are and not enough weight to who they think they are. And that’s something that  helps to find kind of not only who I am, but who I want and dream to be, I’ll say this last thing is that,  on that, on that question, I went way old school with recently.

So I went to Blockbuster and I had my mask – not Blockbuster, they’re gone. Barnes and Nobles! Blockbuster, I don’t have a time machine. I didn’t go to Blockbuster.  I went to Barnes and Nobles and I have a mask on and, and look through, but I got a bunch of magazines and I started cutting out pictures.

And I’m building my dream board of what I want to do and be, achieve, in the next five to seven years, because what I realized about success is the reason that I’ve done some things that have worked out is I’ve always been so future-focused that the challenges of the moment were just a thing to overcome to get to this future, right, that kept me up at night because I was chasing that dream. And most people don’t have a strong enough vision for what they want, so then  anything will knock them off track. But the more tightly defined what it is you want and the impact to other people that you can have, then it becomes more difficult for naysayers or challenges that we all have, right, to knock you off track. They may slow you down, they may bring you to a stop for just a moment, but they’re not going to make you get off of that train for your success and then start living the life to please other people. And so, I’m very big on goals, I’m very big on what, what do I want, what do I need to do to get what I want and then who I need to surround myself to help me get there.

Evelyn Del:  Wow. That is very aspirational. I love what you say about not being afraid to fail, because I think a lot of times we were in the process of learning how to, you know, build and grow a business, or even just, you know, thinking about the fact that we can, we do have the capability to, to go outside of the box and go into entrepreneurship.

We are afraid  to fail. You have a quote on your website and that says “Changing culture through innovative business strategy.” I love that when you know, to me, that’s that stood out amongst everything else that I already know about you. When was it that you realized that that was one of the key components to your career?

Donald Thompson:  So, growing up, sports played a big role in my life because that’s how my family paid their bills. And, you know, I remember being on sidelines and I used to, at an early age, the games weren’t the most exciting thing to me. Right? Like going into a stadium with 70,000 people, seeing the games, being on the sidelines with my dad, that was fun and gave me a lot of memories.

But I like to watch my dad’s football teams practice. I like to watch how they interact with the coaches and the other players. I like to understand how they trained. What they had to go through so that when the lights came on, they could perform at a high  level. And so, what I started to understand as a youngster is that one, you can’t do anything by yourself if you have a big goal, right? The only, the only people that can do something by themselves, their goals are small. But if you have a big goal, that means you need to be a part of and lead and develop a team. And so, therefore, the culture of who you spend time with. The people you learn from the people you associate with, you have to find people that you can count on.

And one of the things that, and I appreciate the question it’s given me memories and little chills, is I remember – I was probably, and I think I was 13 – and I was at one of the practices with, with one of my dad’s teams and I was watching him talk to his team after practice. And they would have little sayings that they would do after they break their huddle and stuff.

And one of the slogans that I’ll never forget is they said in unison, “You can count on me.”  And so, I was always looking for people that I could count on when I was hiring. That would be what they said they are on their resume. And then, I wanted to be someone that people could count on. I wanted to be able to look people in the eye and say, you can count on me. That if I’m in business with you, if I’m a sales rep for your company, you can count on me.

If I’m your board, on your board of directors or you and I are partners in a new business venture, you can count on me. I didn’t want to be the weak link of why that team wasn’t a high performing team and that has to do with a culture of excellence. Right? That has to do with a lot of times, people that are coming up and I get it, right, some people may come from a socioeconomic environment where not having three meals a day, one meal a day is a luxury, How are we going to pay the light bill and the mortgage and the phone bill and the car payment? How do you raise your vision above your  circumstance? That’s difficult. I don’t want to come from a place that that’s easy to do, I want to come from a place that it’s worth it to do. And that’s different. It’s a difference between easy and worth it. And as I came up in, grew up, I just needed to know it was worth it, and then I was willing to commit to do what was required to succeed and win.

Greg Hedgepeth:  Wow. First and foremost, you know how, like they say, you find glimpses of yourself in other people, right?

But like, I almost see mirror image. And it is absolutely the reason why I am a faithful person. And I truly believe that, you know, people are placed in your path on purpose, right? Like, we’re just living out the story that has already been written, and we have to be obedient to it because when I think about why we started Substantial in the mere definition of the term, being strongly built or made, in just those two questions we asked you, you exuded and  exemplified every bit of that, right?  You’re the CEO of one of the larger digital marketing companies here in Raleigh, Walk West. And I, I’ve been in the higher education, marketing communications, public relations space in another hat, and what I find a lot of times is that, you know, from a diversity perspective, those in leadership roles, we’re few and far between. And so, again, this speaks to your character. That firm, its claim to fame, is it positions itself as a team of creative problem solvers. Like, coming into that space and championing it. How has that been for you, one, but then, two, talk about your approach as it relates to building that company over time.

Donald Thompson:  Yeah. I appreciate the question. You know, what do people want from a marketing firm or a partner? Right? They want more leads. We’ve talked about all different kinds of stuff, and they want more leads that convert into customers  so they can make more money.

And so, when you break things down to the very simple foundation, life’s not as complicated as we make it and neither is marketing. So now, what we have to do is when we know that you want more leads, when you want to convert those leads into clients, what stopping you from doing that today? And let’s have that conversation because some people will come to us and say, “We need a new website. We need a promotional video. We need more SEO.” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. What we need to find out is what are you already doing? What can we do to amplify what you’re already doing that’s working? And what new ways can we tell your story across these digital platforms so that you can get more leads, more clients that convert into dollars. By keeping it simple, we’re able to look at what that client does and not move the needle with the latest marketing buzz-salad phrase,  but how do we get the business outcome that companies need? So in building the company, back to your question, we had to find people of diverse backgrounds. Not just for the sake of having women in leadership, but having different thought processes that we could attach to the problems we’re trying to overcome for our clients.

If you have a homogeneous team, all white males, blue blazer, white shirt, khakis, you’re going to get a homogeneous marketing strategy and that does not creatively help you solve problems. The reason that we’re winning at Walk West is you are able to progress in our firm based on performance, not based on pedigree, which means we’re able to attract creative, strong thinkers from a multitude of backgrounds, because they want to be on a team that, number one, is growing. Number two,  is growing in a way that grows people as well as clients. So, we want to give people the opportunity to stretch themselves. Everybody says they want to work for a startup organization, a fast-growing organization. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. A lot of people like to work with an organization that steady as they go, job is the same, standard is the same. In our case, in growing from 2015 to 2020, 2018, 2019, 2020, Inc. 5,000. That means if you’re growing to the next level every year, that means expectations are changing. If you’re growing every year, that means that you’re chasing larger clients, which means your competition is stronger, which means you have to be better and stronger.

So in building a culture, we had to find absolute creative winners, right, that wanted to be in that process of continued evolution, not people that wanted to rest on the creative project they did last year.  We needed to find people that were chasing what’s next, not justifying what is now based on what they did in, in the past.

We’re looking for people that want to create the future for our clients. And that is a different cat, right? That’s a different person. And so, a lot of what we had to do at Walk West, I was investor in 2015, not really hands-on running the business. And then in 2018,  I became the CEO and we had to transition a little, a little bit in the company because some people just wanted to hang out a little bit and there’s nothing in my DNA, right, about hanging out and do an average work for any length of time. Not nothing. Right? So I’m, I’m not everybody’s cup of tea or coffee or different things. So we had to create alignment between a growing standard and then the type of people that want to chase their career growth in a company that’s going to give them the space to do it, but the expectation that they do it,  the expectation that no matter whether you’re an intern or the CEO, the best idea wins.

And that type of culture is something that I try to instill in the companies that I create or the companies that I work with or the companies that I serve on boards and different things with. But it’s, it’s hard to be an entrepreneur, but it’s rewarding to be an entrepreneur, right? I’ve worked in companies that are much, much larger, and there’s value in large corporations. I don’t mean it like that, but, but I have too many ideas to work in a big company. ‘Cause I got to see my ideas put in action. Like I can’t write, you know, 10 page memos that circulate through the hierarchy, right? Like, so as an entrepreneur, you either think my idea’s good or not good.

I need to up or down vote on that right now. I don’t mean that you need to accept all my ideas, but you need to hear about them. Right? And those are the kinds of people that thrive in  the, in the companies that we’re building.

Greg Hedgepeth:  I love it.

Evelyn Del:  It sounds like an ideal place to work. I think one of the things that, and I can speak, you know, from a personal standpoint, you know, just being in that creative space, it’s very hard to strike that balance of, you know, how do I put myself in a position where I’m excelling my professional career and managing the creative chaos sets in my mind.

You know, while also being a leader at the same time, there are so many moving parts. And I, you know, that’s something that I don’t think they necessarily teach all the time when you’re in school and you’re learning how, you know, to do a trade or something like that.  So I appreciate that, that, that insight for us. I’m curious to know, and I guess it kind of blends a little bit together, speaks to, you know, the backstory.

What is, you know, tell us a little bit about The Diversity Movement and how that came to be?

Donald Thompson:  Yeah, I appreciate the question very  much. And you know, I had no intention of starting another company, so let’s start there, right? And, you know, my, my wife and-it was like, what are you doing?  In marketing – and The Diversity Movement was birthed out of Walk West. We started to get a lot of our clients that were very sincerely looking at their messaging to multicultural audiences. We had clients that were doing videos or content, and we’re looking at their website and we would ask them, “Do you only want to sell it to white people?”

They were like, “No, of course not. No, no, no, no,” but there’s only white people on the website and only white people, but like you have zero imagery of anything other than, right, that majority group. And they’re like, “We didn’t even realize that.” We had video shoots to where a  script is written, but it’s tone deaf to anybody except one specific group.

And we started to ask our clients as we were helping them and supporting them on their journey.  We looked back into their organizations and we said, “Do you want to understand diversity, equity, inclusion, internally, or just market to sell more products?” And overwhelmingly, our clients were like, “We want to learn more.”

It wasn’t a lack of interest or commitment, it was a lack of knowing how, what to do, how to think about it. And so, we did some sessions with our clients just based on our life experience, because we have a diverse company. And then we said, “Wait a minute. If people are going to really trust us with these conversations, we might want to get some training.”

We might want to, like-right now, we wing it. We don’t want to hurt nobody, right? And so, four of our  executives at Walk West became certified diversity executives, and we went through a very intense training regimen. And it changed us. We said, “You know what, with this knowledge,” – and then our background as communicators, our background as business leaders. Now, our certifications from going through these experiences and training, we started to say, “How do we want to help?” And so, we said, “Let’s build an e-learning course, right? And then that way, we can just sell this e-learning course and we can help people.” And so, we invested hundreds of thousands of dollars: videos, podcasts, hiring an instructional designer, and we built Beyond the Checkbox, right?

Because what we wanted to encourage people to do around DEI is moved beyond the checkbox. And how do you implement and move forward and create measurable outcomes for diversity, equity, inclusion. We took this course through a beta program, and we had over close to a hundred people in our beta program.

And we did not launch the,  the e-learning course until we got over 4.5 average score in the beta. And then as we built the course, as we were doing over a thousand hours of research, Jackie Ferguson put into doing and building this course, we were like, “There’s not anything out there that’s better than what we’re doing.”

Right? We looked at what was done at Cornell, at Yale and, and blah, blah, blah, and all this stuff, and ours is better. Like, I mean, people can do what they want, they can buy what they want, but ours is better, right? Because ours wasn’t built by HR personnel, it was built by business leaders. It was built by people that lived experience, marketers and award-winning journalists, right, contributed to this content. And then people were looking at the course, part of the beta. They were like, “We need you to come in to our company and help us.” And now fast forward, right, from May to now, we probably have – I don’t want to get  into details, but 50 plus clients, over a million dollars in revenue and we’ve spun it out officially into its own company.

And we’re going to go out for,  for funding to help us grow our dream and our vision  in the next 30 to 40 days to where we’re going to look at investors in different things like that. Our premise with The Diversity Movement was we needed to move beyond just the DEI pep rally. So, we incorporated DEI content into a mobile app that we have, that we provide to clients.

We built a pure learning portal so that DEI practitioners can get together and share information insights and best practices. We’ve built a portfolio now, e-learning courses, so that we can basically create behavioral change at scale, right? And that’s what we’re trying to do and accomplish. And so, it started as a passion project, right, something we wanted to do to be  helpful, and it is turned into a mission. It’s turned into a movement. And so, we were looking at the name of the company. That’s why we came to the conclusion that we wanted to call it The Diversity Movement, because we wanted to build something that was going to be bigger and is bigger than even the impact we could have alone.

Evelyn Del:  That is amazing. You know, I, I guess, and I know Greg can probably identify with, with that story because, you know, we say to each other all the time, it’s, it’s the gift and the curse of the creative brain, you know, you, you have one mission and it automatically starts to, you know, have these branches that are going off , and we definitely want to talk a little bit about scaling your businesses, too, but before we dive into that, just a quick followup to what you say, I love how you said her team was built in providing those solutions for companies. Obviously, you know, current events, things like that, if there’s a buzzword, you know, those, everyone is wanting to be inclusive and a  lot of people tend to miss the mark. How does that presence of cultural, current events, pop culture, things like that, how does that affect the way you do business? You know, because I know, you know, as a seasoned business leader, a lot of times you can tell the difference between a company who is truly committed to that and someone who’s just kind of filling in the gaps.

Donald Thompson:  Yeah. The, the customers that get the highest level of benefit from working with The Diversity Movement are those that want to go on the journey with us. And they understand that it’s a process of try, fail and adjust. We don’t have the answers, we’re going to help them find them in a way that aligns with the mission, values and objectives of their company.

We’re not a one size fits all organization. Just like individuals learn differently, companies have different cultures. And so, some people can learn through listening to a podcast and apply that thinking some people can sit in a live course or a virtual training. Some people need to watch  privately because this content is sensitive and tough.

People have to internally look at themselves, how do they need to be better? How do they need to think different? And so, we try to provide tools that align with the psychological safety that people need to really take on tough subject matter, and then prepare them to now go into a group setting and be more engaged.

And we found that diversity, equity, inclusion is now a C level conversation. And that’s very, very important. I’ll give a couple of examples. We found that the companies that are succeeding with our programming and on the journey with us, the C-suite is actively involved, right? So it’s not just CEO buy-in, it’s CEO engagement, right? And those things are different, right? A CEO can buy into something  and then say, “Here’s some money, go do that.” Or, a CEO and it’s in his or her leaders or, or their leadership can lead by example, right? And so, the corporations that we’re looking for, because we’re still a smaller firm, we’re on the rise, but we’re a smaller firm.

And so, we’re really, really fortunate that like, we can only take on so many projects and partners at, at the same time. And so, we do like to vet the clients to make sure that as we’re going on this journey, that there really is an openness to change mindsets and mental models and thinking. And, and that does have to come from the top down because organizations respond right to the language, to the behaviors, to the commitments of the leadership.

And that’s whether it’s the United States of America, that’s whether it’s your church, that’s whether it’s a university, a corporation or a startup, right? And so, it’s very important that we give leaders the space, and one of the things that – I have a  wonderful team – the area that I excel in, right, that I am valuable is speaking with board members and executives, because I’ve handled a P and L.

I’ve built businesses, have sold companies. So, independent of the size of organization I’m talking to, there’s a kindred of that thinking because I understand the challenge of working on an initiative that you don’t fully understand its payback yet, and the bottom line elements of having to meet your quarterly numbers.

And so, I’m able to tie together diversity, equity, inclusion into the DNA of the strategy, and that’s the language of leaders, right? Leaders don’t have really the autonomy to do things just because they’re good in most cases, because most leaders of organizations don’t own a hundred percent of the company.

And so, boards, “DEI is good. I’m gonna need my 15% profit though, so I’m gonna  need you to explain to me how this goodness is going to be goodness for my wallet.” Right? And so, that’s the kind of conversation that I’m able to have with, with organizations and then demonstrate those measurements in real time. It’s a great question.

Greg Hedgepeth:  No. Wow. That’s awesome. It, it, it reminds me of two quotes. One, is that there are so many more important things than money, but it takes money to do all of those very important things. And then based on what you just mentioned and the historic moment that happened in our nation, if we’re talking about recent events and current culture, was the fact that during this exchange of power, we said that we, we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. And it sounds like that is what The Diversity Movement is doing from the top down as saying, “Hey, you are the power, the, the simple in this organization, and it is going to take a you, committing yourself  and engaging in this work, to get others excited about it and committed to doing it as well.”

So that is, hats off. Speaks to the mindset that you have as it relates to just overall entrepreneurship, businesses success.  I’ll ask if I can I’ll pivot back to that. So third, as a mentor, you’re a board member. You’re an investor. What are two to four questions? What are some things that you’re looking for when you’re about to take on that next mentee or, or you’re willing to coach someone or sit on a board or invest in a company? And then I’ll ask, the other part of that is, you know, what is something that a, an aspiring entrepreneur – or even a seasoned professional – should be looking for in a mentor, an investor or someone to sit on their board, if that makes sense?

Donald Thompson:  So when I’m looking to invest in a company, and I’ll  start there and kind of move through the board piece, right, can I add more value than just dollars? Because I’m a hands-on investor, not so much a passive investor.

I like to work with the people and the teams where I put my money, both because I enjoy building teams and working with people, but I also enjoy watching where my money’s at, right? So I just don’t write checks and kind of forget, I don’t have money like that. But, the second thing and the most important thing is the leader of that organization a competitive learner, right?

Are they really open to new ideas or ways to make their ideas better? Might not always be a new idea, but to make their good ideas better. It’s very important that openness aligned with commitment to their vision. See some people are so committed to their vision, they don’t hear the thoughts of others that, that’s not good.

Right? You want to be committed to your vision, but you want to leave 5%  to where you can hear the voices of people that think you might need to move in a different direction. It doesn’t mean you always listen to that external voice or board, but you have understood that perspective to strengthen the resolve of your idea, to strengthen your product or service offering.

From a board standpoint, you know, I’m much more open these days about board service, because I think that that’s the next frontier of diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s where the power sits.

Right? You think about a board of an organization, that’s who selects the CEO, that’s who keeps the management team accountable. And I’ve been very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to work with Towne Bank, and I’m on their triangle board. Vidant Medical Center, which is a multi-billion dollar organization in Eastern North Carolina, I’m on their board and very, very fortunate. I got a call from their CEO the other day, and they asked me to serve on their executive  committee. So, I’m on their board now I got more work, so I must’ve done something. I said something in the meeting that they want me to do a little bit more.  The board service is really exciting to me these days, because it allows me to take the experiences that I’ve had and be valuable to other leaders, but also I’m learning so much from the other board members, right? I’m in meetings now listening to brilliant people that are all there together for a common goal, which is to help serve more people in underserved markets in Eastern North Carolina.

Right. When I’m talking about Vidant.  When I talk about Towne Bank, I’m learning more about the financial industry, right? Which is very, very powerful. When I joined the board of a entrepreneurship program at NC State, and working with young people and how they’re chasing their dreams.

And so, for me, the board  service is all about give back, and I select that again. Can I be helpful? Can I have an impact? And I will say this very clearly: I am not interested in boards that just kind of kick it, have a nice dinner, golf once a month. I’m just like, that’s, that’s not my style. I’m interested in boards where they’re asking something of me.

To where I can be valuable, I can be supportive, I can really help. And then from that, what I get back is exposure, experience and education at a different level that I need to grow it, right? And so, the board work is really a win-win for a lot of the organizations that, that I’m a part of.

Greg Hedgepeth:  No, thank you for that.

And, and first and foremost, just humbled by sheer competitive nature to continue to grow. When we started this conversation. Hey, I went out old school Barnes and Nobles grabbed  some magazines, and I’m doing a vision board, to the board of Towne Bank, Vidant one of the largest medical providers in the state of North Carolina, and he putting a vision board?

And then I thought about it because you have to have that vision. You have to always go where that next thing is. And you also, I feel your pain when you say your wife said “You doing what now? You going to do one more thing?

It sounds so familiar, right? But, I promise you, this is going somewhere. So how do you balance it all? Our listeners are listening, and they’re saying, “Man, like, I want to, but I just don’t have,  where do I build in the capacity? The time?”

Donald Thompson:  There’s phases in life. And so, it’s actually, it’s a good question that I get pretty often, but you have to think about, you have to answer that question about where I was 20 years ago,  10 years ago, not where I’m at now, where I’m at now is I have a team.

Where I’m at now I have a, an assistant. Where I’m at now is I have a marketing organization that can help me with my personal brand. Like, I have some built-in advantages now, right? Because I’ve been able to create synergistic organizations and partnerships and different things. Early in my career, I was not in balanced.

I had family that I needed to feed. And these young children as a father that I wanted to have an amazing life. I didn’t think I needed to hear anything about work-life balance. I needed to hear about work, work, work, work, and then after I developed a skill set for some things, and I was good enough at my job.

I started to be able to throttle back a little bit because I had  developed a skill set that was valuable in addition to my work ethic. There’s a phase where you have to say, “I’m willing to be a little bit out of balance so that I can make this move.” That’s not a ten-year phase. That’s not, it’s not what I mean, but there are phases to balance, right?

And you got to know what season you’re in.  So, and I’ll talk to my kids and you can talk to my kids like, “Hey,” cause they understood the difference between how we started to live as my career progressed, right? Do you want me to be able to say yes to vacation in a cool space or not this year?

What answer do you want? Remember, my daughter Ciera said, she went to App State, graduated with honors, her video production team – she’s in communications, so she worked on a TV show in school and they won the national championship  for communications undergrads in the nation. They did this competition, and the TV show did great.

Right? I remember when she was in high school junior, she said, “Dad, do we have a college fund for me to go to school?” ‘Cause you know how you meet with counselors and they talked about how you can pay for school and different things. And so, she comes home one day, you know, she’s excited about college. She’s doing good in school. “Do we have a college fund set?” I was like, “No.” She said, “Excuse me?”

I said, and, and I went into my office and I pulled out my checkbook. I said, “That’s your college fund.” She said, what do you mean? I said, I’ll write a check for whatever you need for college. You keep your nose clean, you keep out of trouble, you keep good grades. I got it. And she was like, her eyes got big because she, she didn’t really understand how well or not well we were doing at that point. Right? Like we, we had progressed enough and she said, well, how can you do that? I said, “Remember the times where daddy had to work a little bit extra,  and I was maybe about 10 minutes late for your basketball game, and I hugged you and just hoped you’d understand.” She was like, “Yeah,” she said, “but you always tried to come.”

I said, “But because of those things we did, you don’t have to worry about college. Because of those things we did as a family, you don’t have to worry about that.” And she said, “I got it,” and then she said, “Thank you,” right? Because your kids don’t understand  when they’re little, but how do you feel like let’s, let’s just talk real, talk for a second.

Now, I understand I’m in the DEI space. I get it. There is a traditional mindset of a father wanting to be able to take care of his daughter and have her a beautiful wedding. Right? Let’s not, let’s not get into all of this. I’m talking about father and a daughter. Me and you talking right now. My life, my children.

How do you feel if you can’t give your daughter the wedding that she wants to have?

Greg Hedgepeth:  As, as a father of two beautiful little girls? I would, it would I be devastated.

Donald Thompson:  Now, they not gonna remember if you was late to the tea party at elementary school when they’re six, but they will know if you’re not ready to handle certain things when they’re 16 and they want to drive, when they’re 18 and go to college, when they’re 25 and they want to get married, when they’re 28 and them and their husband needed an extra $10,000 or $15,000 down payment on a house, they’ll remember that shit. And so, I get balance, but you got to understand what you’re trying to accomplish with, for you, for your family. Like, what are you trying to, what are you trying to do? And that’s the balance. And now to bring it to present day, when you ask how I balance it. Well, we’re having an inauguration. I’m wanting to watch the integration, so I stopped.  Have some chicken wings and watch, I had an inauguration party. A week or so ago. I woke up, I called my assistant and I said, “You know what? I don’t feel like doing none of this shit today.” I said, “Cancel all of it.” And you know what I did? I watched the Avengers.

And I watched Iron Man, and I watched what’s the dude? Thor? I warched the infinity, the Infinity Ring one. And I’ve just – all day. This was like, this was like 30 days ago. All day. I just want to see Avengers. You know why? I’m in charge!

Right? Now, if I’m doing all the work-life balance twenty-five years ago. Who knows, right? But now if I’m tired, I can rest. If I’m stressed, I can rest. If I just don’t want to do  it, I can rest.

Evelyn Del:  You know, I think you have really summed up. If we really think about this, you have summed up the key to life. And I think as I get older, you think of things in a different world. And like you said, you go through different phases and, you know, when you were speaking about your, your kids and how you progressed in life, it really made me think of my own mom.

You know, I was raised by a single mom and I told her, I said it wasn’t until I was older. And when it certain things from my own kids that I said, “How does she do that?” You know, she did it by herself. And I never wanted for anything, I never knew that, you know, they always say you don’t want to know how the sausage is made.

I just knew that when I woke up, my mother was there. When I went to bed, my mother was there not knowing she was working two or three jobs at the time. She was an entrepreneur and working full time. She just made it work somehow, you know? So I do I  tell her now that she’s, you know, older and her kids are grown and said, when you – it’s the same thing, if you’re tired, You deserve to take a break.

Greg Hedgepeth:  Donald, it’s been a pleasure. And, and with the time that we have left, we really do have a special announcement and we were talking about being on the board and serving as a mentor or a coach, invester, is super honored as the president and CEO of Substantial Media, LLC, to be able to say that you have taken that interest and seen something in myself, Evelyn, and the team of people that we have looking to continue to create and develop this multimedia online platform. And you are going to be an investor in Substantial Media, LLC. And when I talk about owning 2021, I mean, just to have you, or just to be able  to have to have conversations with you, that – to have you as that engaged board member, I’m truly grateful.

But, but speak to our audience about one, just like just what, what you saw one, but then two why Substantial Media?

Donald Thompson:  Yeah. You know, I remember vividly, right, you know, you invited me to speak at, I think it was the 2019, was it 2020 or 2019 Black Lens Symposium?

Greg Hedgepeth:  2020.

Donald Thompson:  2020. And, that’s where we got introduced. Like, I knew of you and saw you on the website and different things for, for the Institute of emerging issues and things like that, but we didn’t really know each other. But I went to this event, I walked in the room. I was like, “This is – wow. This is well done.” I was like, “This, this is pretty good.” The crowd, all the speakers we’re really engaging, and the mission was to empower African-Americans to be greater, to be better, to work together  doing it. And so, I started to just be watchful. And I remember you and I talked for about five minutes outside the corridor, I said “What else are you into?” Right? ‘Cause I was like, yeah, I’m going to hire this cat.

You know what I mean? Like this, I don’t know what he’s doing, but he needed to get on. He needed to get with a DT experience. I need to I’ll find something, I need to hire this cat. And I said, “What, what are you doing?” ‘Cause whatever you were doing, I was going to be like, “Yeah, don’t worry about that. We need to go do this.”

And I remember, are you talking about Substantial. I remember you talking about the different things that you were doing. And I said, “Nah, man, this guy’s unhireable. This is, this is a full-throated entrepreneur right here, right?” Like, you don’t really want to hire a full throated entrepreneur in your internal business.

Right? Like they’re decent, but they’re not great employees because they’re good employees, but then it, you know.  So I was like, “Yeah, nah.” And then he started, but you started to tell me what you’re doing with Substantial. And I was like, “Wait a minute, you have a digital, you have a magazine?” He’s like, “Oh, not only do we have a magazine, we do the Substantial awards in Greenville, North Carolina. We partnered with this, and then we do this and then we work with underserved youth,” and I was like, “Whoa. Okay.” But you started telling me your vision of what you wanted to do, and I remember asking you, so you just want to have a magazine in Eastern North Carolina? Like “No,” right? “I want this to become,” and I think Evelyn, you said this.

You, you said we want to become “Black Enterprise’s cooler little sister.”

In talking to both of you. Like, I just liked the rhythm of what they’re putting down, right? And so, then I had to figure out, are they willing to do the work? Because a lot of people can talk a good game and put it. And so, as I researched you all, I got more compelled that, man. What if I could give them a little support financially? A little  support with my network, a little support with my knowledge, could I be helpful for this vision? And what you’re doing is creating a media enterprise that speaks the truth of not only who we are, but what we can be. And so, I was like, “I need to be helpful if I can be helpful,” and that’s why we started those discussions and, and ultimately,  put my checkbook where my mouth was and my, and my time where my rhetoric was.

And so, those are some of the reasons that, you know, in, in talking with, with both of you over the course of the last few months,  I wanted to be a part of what, what you all are doing and see if I can lend a hand in a positive way.

Greg Hedgepeth:  Yeah. Well, listen, this is like I said, been a pleasure.

I could go on and on man. So, so thank you so much for this opportunity, for this experience,  for your support, for your thought leadership, for your insight, and the sky is the limit as to where we go, because I assure you when we built this company, we did so with that duality in mind,  those various dimensions of diversity, right? Where the mother, husband, the father, the family, and the, you know, all of those components working together to uplift and empower community.  And I’ll just leave with how I started.  Donald Thompson, you are the example of Substantial, right of considerable importance, size and worth.

You are strongly built and made. And we are so glad to have you as a part of the Substantial family.

Donald Thompson:  Well, I appreciate it.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit

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